Sunday, January 14, 2018

Review: Akata Witch

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Published 2011 by Viking Press

349 pages, fantasy.

Reading this book made the chittim rain down around me. You will have to read it too to find out what I mean by that!

I kept trying to read this book.

I checked it out from the library last summer, because I'd heard it was good. That's all I really knew about it though, and something about the cover didn't really draw me in. I renewed it over and over, until I finally had to return it three months later, without ever cracking the cover.

More recently, I tried again. I know I tend to default to white, Anglo authors and familiar settings. I still didn't know what it was about, but I had a vague idea it was set in an African country. Again, I renewed it faithfully while I read other books.

It's due tomorrow, with no more renewals possible. So yesterday, I decided to give it a try. In case you ever wonder about the power of blurbs, as soon as I noticed that Ursula K. Le Guin praised it on the cover, I kicked myself for waiting so long.

And then I started the book.

Let's get this out of the way first: you will think of Harry Potter when you read this. There are four young people dealing with the magical world even as they deal with the regular challenges of puberty The POV character was ignorant of the magical world and her own elevated status within it until the age of 12. She is instantly recognizable to others because of a physical anomaly. The other children grew up in that world. The world is divided into magical and non-magical people, who are called a vaguely condescending name ("lambs"). There are rules about what underage wizards can't do, and our band of friends regularly flouts these rules. There are teachers, all wise, but not all kind, and there is a terrible evil that only the children can defeat.

And...there's a magical sport that is hugely popular.  The sport is about as far from Quidditch as you can get, but this was still the parallel that made me go, "C'mon, is this really necessary?"

Still, there have always been stories about groups of kids dealing with magic, from Five Children and It to The Inquisitor's Tale. The story is fresh and original and stands entirely on its own feet. Not just because it's set in Nigeria, and not just because the protagonist is female, although both of those things are hugely important features of the book. The story focuses on the tension between the spiritual and the physical, between greed and a hunger for knowledge, between myth and everyday life.

The book also dives into issues of immigration, duality, and belonging.  "Akata" itself is a derogatory word for African Americans, meaning something like "wild animal." Sunny, our hero, was born in the United States to Nigerian parents, and the family returned to Nigeria only three years before the story begins. She is asked frequently throughout the book to claim one nationality or the other, and she is confused about which to say and stubborn in her inclusion of both. Two of her friends are Nigerian born, and the fourth member of their group is a recent immigrant from Chicago, a boy seen as even less Nigerian than Sunny.  Her name could be heard as Sonny. Her American friend's name is Sasha, and he gets teased for having a girl's name.* Two members of the group are girls, and two are boys. Two are impulsive and aggressive, two are reflective and peaceful.  One theme of the book is that we all have more than one side. Another theme is that our perceived weaknesses can also be our greatest strengths.

Despite being a teacher, I rarely read a book and feel compelled to analyze it for theme. The fact that Akata Witch pulls me to analyze it to such an extent (my scribbled notes include "What is the importance of smoking to the story?" and "gender roles/soccer game") should not be seen as meaning the book is dry or didactic. It's magical and humorous, terrifying and alive.  It also does a great job at setting up a higher stakes conflict for the next book.

5/5 stars

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Sunday Post #24

Kimberly at Caffeinated Book Reviewer hosts the weekly (duh) Sunday Post link-up. I participate sporadically, but am ready to roll this week!

Books Read: Five

This week I was reading for Cybils and finished two of the short-listed books, Leigh Bardugo's Wonder Woman: Warbringer and F. T. Lukens's The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths and Magic. I can't say much about them yet as we're still in process with judging, but I will point out that both have heavily alliterative titles, and assure you that both deserve to be on the short list. I skimmed the collection called Funny Girl: Funniest. Stories. Ever. and found that very few of them lived up to their subtitle. I also finished up two books that for some reason took me forever to get through. I started listening to Laini Taylor's Night of Cake and Puppets on audiobook before winter break, but then I neglected it when my commute stopped for those weeks, and then the library took it back, TWICE (so rude), but I finally came across a hard copy at the library and devoured the rest of it. Loved it, too. The other book I read is Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor. This one I checked out from the library last summer, renewed for a total of three months, never read it, tried again, renewed for a total of three months, realized it's due this Sunday, and devoured in two days. Review coming soon, which is not something I usually say.

Acknowledging that I can't give away my reaction to the Cybils books, my favorite of the week from the remaining options has to be Akata Witch.



Which cover do you prefer? I read the one on the top right, which is definitely less scary looking. It seems the book has been published under the name What Sunny Saw in the Flames too, and I'm not sure why.

This is my third post this week, which is a good improvement from my blogging slump in December. I also have ideas and enthusiasm for more posts, and time to write them this weekend, so I am looking forward to a good blogging week too. I am very close to two milestones for me--I'm coming up on my 500th post, and on (this is probably embarrassing) my 50,000th page view. I'm sure there are bloggers that get that much traffic daily, but well, I don't. What should I do to celebrate?

Reading Life
If you need some lists of terrific YA and MG (and children's) books published in 2017, go check out the Cybils finalists as well as the Nerdy Book Club Winners. I look at those lists and despair of ever reading enough books. (The Nerdies release several days of winners; I linked to one of the YA days, and you can explore from there.)

I'm still trying to get myself organized for my reading year. I've made a Google Form the last few years that tracks all sorts of data, and I've tweaked it this year again. I also signed up for some challenges. I don't usually do that, because I'm such a mood reader, but I figured out that if I sign up for challenges I DO ANYWAY, it should be easy. So I'm doing both the Backlist Challenge and the Library Love challenge, which is somewhat redundant, now that I think of it. But both have different rules around how to submit books for their records and giveaways, so I have to track that too.

Out of nine books read this year, all nine were backlist books, seven were from the public library, and three qualified for a Popsugar category (GLBQT protagonist, author of color, and protagonist with mental illness.)

Best for last: I just (as in, on another tab while I write this post) signed up for a reading retreat at the end of this month. It's organized by the same person who ran the writing retreat I went to in summer of 2016, Beth Woolsey. Her blog is not a book blog, but she loves books too, and I am thrilled that I decided to go--and that she offered me a substantial discount. Thanks, Beth! 

Real Life
I just negotiated with my tween that we'd eat pot stickers for dinner so I don't have to go to the store for actual ingredients tonight. I have been napping a ridiculous amount lately. My son started a new school and it seems to be going okay. My daughter just learned how to do a bridge kickover at a rec center gymnastics class. My husband is playing bridge. That's pretty much what's going on here these days.

My Friday afternoon/evening set-up. Blankets and books. 

My kids have become obsessed with setting out breakfast for me. This is a Very Good Thing.

Have a good week, everyone! 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Wannabe Librarian

One of my favorite things--right up there with homemade cookies and finding an unexpected five dollar bill in my pocket*--is people asking me for book suggestions.

Recently I was on hall duty with a U.S. History teacher, and she said, "Hey, I wanted to ask you--we want to bring in some fiction for our westward expansion unit later in the spring, and I hoped you might have some titles to suggest." Did I ever. I'm not good at thinking of them off the top of my head, but it only took me a quick cross referencing of my "historical fiction" and my "recommended for middle schoolers" bookshelves on Goodreads to come up with a fine list for her team.

Just before Christmas I got a text from my sister.  "What graphic novels would you recommend for a sixteen year old who likes Percy Jackson type books?"  To me, sixteen is old enough to read any damn thing you want, but I didn't want to risk her offending her brother- and sister-in-law, the parents of the kid in question, so I annotated it as to which ones might include nekked people. (Even for myself, I find the visuals of nudity to be more startling than the narration of it.)

And then there are the pleas on Facebook book communities of various types.  An elementary school teacher writes, "What books do you recommend for a 4th grader reading at an 8th grade level who is definitely not ready for more mature themes?" A younger reader says, "Are there any books with African American characters but the books are just about people, not the Civil Rights movement?"

I type a few ideas, then a few more, then come back five minutes later with a second and longer comment.

If I were independently wealthy, I'd volunteer at a bookstore or library and just offer title suggestions to people all day long. I often dream about adding a librarian certification to my teaching license, but my state requires practicums at two levels (middle and high school), and it's awfully hard to swing "student teaching" when you already teach full time. Also, school library jobs have been decimated in the past 15 years. So for now, I'll have to be content with creating lists for the occasional person who brightens my day by asking.

Do people ask you for book recommendations? Are you good at thinking of them off the cuff, or do you have to do research and get back to them too? Would you be a librarian if you could? If you are a librarian, tell me something about your job that drives you nuts, so I won't be as envious.

*I originally had this as "finding a five dollar bill in your pocket," but I realized it made me sound like the Artful Dodger that way.

Linking up with Nicole and Shannon's Discussion Challenge.

Era of Westward Expansion MG/YA Fiction
Walk on Earth a Stranger
One Came Back
Vengeance Road
May B.
Salt: The Story of Friendship in a Time of War
Under a Painted Sky
The Jump-Off Creek
A Heart for Any Fate
Donner Dinner Party
Mr. Tucket
Our Only May Amelia
Carver: A Life in Poems

It bothers me that this list is so Eurocentric. Even letting go of the pioneer classics of my youth with their racist tropes, this is still a collection of books mostly about white people written almost entirely by white people.  I would love any suggestions of books about westward expansion from a Native, black, or Latino point of view, especially if its #ownvoices.

YA Graphic Novels
Saga (some adult stuff)
Paper GIrls

adaptations I recommend:
Kindred (some adult stuff)
The Graveyard Book
Anne of Green Gables, although I didn't suggest this one for my sister's nephew

currently popular comic collections:
The Walking Dead
Archie (Riverdale reboot)

Lighter Middle Grade Authors for Precocious Elementary School Readers
Gordan Korman
Sharon M. Draper
Jennifer Nielsen
Rick Riordan
Jennifer L. Holm
Christopher Paul Curtis
Donna Gephart
Alex Gino
Gary Paulsen
Kwame Alexander: The Crossover, Booked
W. Bruce Cameron's young readers' editions
Jason Reynolds: Ghost, Patina, Miles Morales
Margaret Peterson Haddix's sci fi series

Louisa May Alcott
Lucy Maud Montgomery
Lloyd Alexander

African American authors and POV characters-not slavery or Civil Rights setting

Sharon M. Draper
Kwame Alexander
Jason Reynolds
Christopher Paul Curtis
Stephanie Kuehn
Tiffany D. Jackson
Renée Watson
Ashley Bryan
Nicola Yoon
Angie Thomas
Nic Stone
Nikki Grimess
Marilyn Nelson
Walter Dean Myers
Kekla Magoon

Walter Mosley
Toni Morrison
Octavia Butler
Colson Whitehead
Trevor Noah
Chimamanda Adichie Ngozie

Review: Night of Cake and Puppets is a Frothy Delight

Night of Cake and Puppets by Laini Taylor, illustrated by Jim Di Bartolo

Published 2017 by Little Brown Books For Young Readers

256 pages, urban fantasy

Okay, this was plain adorable. I listened to the first 2/3 as an audiobook, and at first I found the girlish tone and implausibly cute accent of the female narrator annoying (Mik is also Czech, but his narrator didn't amp it up nearly as much), but then it grew on me. Still, for whatever reason the library kept taking it back before I was done, so when I was in there yesterday and saw a hard copy, I grabbed it.

GUYS. IT IS HEAVILY ILLUSTRATED. BY LAINI'S HUSBAND. I did not know this, or I would have been reading it all along. Just like Leigh Bardugo's short story collection, The Language of Thorns, the illustrations enhance the magical feeling of the book. Like--sooooo much charm. And then in the acknowledgements, Laini thanks her husband for helping her with the kissing research so she can write romantic scenes, and my tired old heart about burst with delight. 

So why only four stars? Well, it's about two young people playing a game and falling in love. That is the entire plot. It's delightful, but frothy, with very little substance. Still, Taylor is a consistently brilliant writer. This is some of the best fluff ever.  There's a scene where Zuzana is describing the way snow makes Prague magical, and it reminded me of my first night in Riga, coming into the Dome Square with snow falling on the cobblestones, and yes, it's a mental image I've carried with me for 25 years now. 

This book is also short, so you can get through it quickly! You also don't need to have read any of her other work to understand this book--it's a stand-alone companion to the Smoke and Bones series. You'd miss some references, but it wouldn't be hard to understand.

Bottom line: If you like beautiful writing, snarky narrators and/or if your favorite bits of Daughter of Smoke and Bones and Strange the Dreamer were the sweet parts, you'll love this book. 

4/5 stars

Friday, January 5, 2018


I never mean to sign up for challenges, because I'm such a mood reader, and anyway, I already read a ton, so it's not like I need inspiration. I should probably be doing challenges like "get off the couch" or "maybe change your damn sheets" instead.

But every year around this time there are all! these! fun! challenges! floating around the blogosphere, and I just can't resist.

I lowballed my Goodreads challenge this year (or sandbagged it? I never really quite get those terms.). I said 52 books, knowing I've read over 200 the last few years. I just didn't want it to create any pressure.

I considered re-upping for the Mt. TBR challenge, but then I came across the Backlist Challenge hosted by NovelKnights, and I so liked the idea of teaming up with others that I decided to try that instead.  For this one I'm going to set a goal of 100 books, which just goes to show how silly my Goodreads goal is. I love shiny new books that everyone is talking about as much as the next reader, but I have been reading backlist books way longer than I knew there was a term for them, and I still use my library a ton.

Speaking of libraries, the other challenge I am signing up for is also not so much a "challenge" as "recognition of my own reading habits."  The Library Love Challenge is hosted by Angel's Guilty Pleasures and Brooke Blogs. I'm going for the "Library Card on Fire" level of 60+ books from the library. To put that into perspective, I currently have 72 items checked out on my account. Granted, this includes a dozen Garfield books my kids are reading and another dozen audiobooks my students are listening to, but rest assured, I will read 60 library books without even noticing.  I have my library card number memorized. I have my daughter's library card number memorized. I don't quite have my OTHER library system's card number memorized, but I'm getting there. My library is glorious, so I will happily celebrate it all year long.

(If the gifs that pop up are any indication, Neil Patrick Harris spent most of HIMYM accepting challenges.)

I almost forgot! The Discussion Challenge! It's a blogging challenge more than a reading challenge, so I always forget to think of it in this context. Chances are, if you're reading this, you are already familiar with Nicole of Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon of It Starts at Midnight, and with their fabulous monthly link-up of discussion posts from book bloggers.  I love the link-up and am more likely to seek out blog posts from it than just about any other meme out there, because they are always so interesting and varied. Since I don't post anything near daily though, I am only going to sign up at the Discussion Dabbler level again: 1-10 discussions this year. I suspect I have written at least a few more posts than that in past years, but I don't want to overestimate my writing creativity.

ALSO, I was inspired by a conversation on a teachers' Facebook group I belong to to create my own personal challenge. My backlist challenges are all about reading my classroom library, but I'm going to additionally push myself to choose at least two books from each of the following categories:

  • scary
  • romance
  • manga
  • sports
  • illustrated novels (like Diary of a Wimpy Kid)
  • books my students bring in on their own that weren't assigned by another teacher
The logic here is that I want to be able to recommend books to kids with precision, and I want to be able to engage them in readers' conversations even if they are students whose taste doesn't mirror mine. And let's be honest--my extensive fantasy and sci fi collection gets very little attention from the vast majority of my students. It would be different if I were working with on-grade readers, but I'm not, so it's a moot point. If you have any suggestions in any of those categories (especially manga which I am 99% ignorant about, the 1% being that they exist, originate in Japan, and are read back-to-front), then I would LOVE to hear them!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Mt. TBR Final Check-In

The Mt. TBR Challenge is hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block, and it's pretty dang awesome. 

I'm going to try to ease up on the mountaineering/reading analogies this time. I doubt anyone finds them as entertaining as I do.

THAT BEING SAID, even when you don't summit, you see more than you would staying home.

So my goal was to read 75 books that I already had in my classroom library at the beginning of 2017. My point is to be better able to recommend books to specific students based on increased knowledge of what I have.

I only made it to 58 books. But that is 58 more books than I had read before, so I am still pretty pleased with the result. And I do feel like having this challenge in mind kept me going back to the shelves instead of always being distracted by the latest and newest books.

I am two books short of Mt. Kilimanjaro. If I'd realized this yesterday, I probably would have made a run for it, but that's okay. I read my way up four out of eight possible mountains.

Will I do this challenge again next year? I might. I think 48 books, Mt. Ararat, is a good goal. On the one hand, it's about 1/4 of what I read in a year, so it leaves me plenty of room for other types of reading. Also, since my classroom library by definition contains only YA and MG books, they are all reasonably quick reads. I could easily keep it to books I owned before 2017 began, but I may cut myself a break and move it to books owned as of this writing on Dec. 31, 2017. I'm going to try to be less impulsive in my library shopping this year, focusing on books that will add to book club selections, books that specifically reflect my largely Latino class makeup, and books students specifically request. Otherwise, I can read the latest and greatest YA and MG books at the library, THEN decide if I need to shell out for them.

Monday, January 1, 2018

TTT: Best New-to-Me Authors of 2017

The delightful bloggers at The Broke and the Bookish host this weekly list challenge, although it will soon be moving.  If you want to quadruple the size of your TBR AND find a bunch of great book blogs to follow head on over and check them out!

The topic this week is  Top Ten New To Me Authors of 2017.

This is always a fun one to reflect on! I actually made myself an "authors of note, 2017" list recently, so I'll draw mostly from that.

1. Jason Reynolds. 
Okay, I may have read When I Was the Greatest earlier, but 2017 saw me reading All American Boys, Ghost, and Long Way Down, as well as meeting the man and hearing him speak a few times at NCTE. He's an amazing speaker, challenging and encouraging in equal measures.

2. Kendare Blake.  
Again, I'd read her before, making at attempt at horror with Anna Dressed in Blood. But her fantasy trilogy is blowing me away, and I can't wait for The Young Queens.

3. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. 
I'd never heard of her before picking up The War that Saved My Life as part of my Mt. TBR challenge. I read it to a class last spring, and was astonished to hear there would be a sequel, and then to discover it was JUST AS GOOD. So then I read Jefferson's Sons, which was also pretty stunning. And yes, I got to see her at NCTE too.

4. Mindy McGinnis
I'd been meaning to read her for awhile. Finally got started on Female of the Species and then read two more of her books in, oh, two more days. WOW. 

5. Steve Sheinkin. 
Probably the only one I'm adding to this list after one book, but I was so blown away by Most Dangerous. It's my favorite kind of nonfiction, and I don't care if it's marketed as YA just because it's engrossing. I am hoping to read his book about Jim Thorpe pretty soon too.

6. Eric Gansworth. 
He wasn't even on my radar, but I think I saw him mentioned on Debby Reese's blog, American Indians in Children's Literature, and I really liked his book, If I Ever Get Out of Here. Then I met him at NCTE (!) and grabbed a copy of another book of his, Give Me Some Truth. The number of Native American or First People authors I've read is tiny, so it's always great to find another good one.

7. Chmamanda Ngozi Adichie. 
Ooh, look at me all fancy, adding a "literary" author to my list.  I listened to Americanah on audiobook this year, and had one of those "these characters are nothing like me and I relate to them so hard" experiences where one book is both window and mirror. 

8. Cat Winters. 
I had it in my mind that she was a teen romance writer. Then I found out she's from Oregon. Then I found out one of her books is a 1920s retelling of Hamlet with a biracial protagonist, and I was all, 'Um, I may have been overly quick to judge this author based on pretty dresses on her covers." I enjoyed The Steep and Thorny Way and a looking forward to Odd and True.

9. Renée Watson. 
Another Oregon author, another NCTE meet, another Mt. TBR push to read. This Side of Home gave me a lot to think about, and I hope to soon read Piecing Me Together.

10. Ursula Vernon
I can't get over how absolutely charming and emotionally engaging Digger, Vernon's multi volume comic about a wombat, is.

I can't wait to find out which new authors blow me away in 2018!

Falconer's Library 2017 Stats: PIE! (Charts). Also Bar Graphs.

I like keeping lists. I just do. It's why bullet journaling, rather to my surprise, has been part of my life for a solid 10 months now. Every year since joining Goodreads nearly a decade ago, I've logged every single book I've read, minus a few picture books, plus several I read earlier in my life. I've looked back at my 5 star books and emailed out lists of my favorites from each year. As I got into blogging and the online book community, I started keeping track of more details. I've had a spreadsheet for a few years now, made easier through Google Forms. That also allows me to graph my data with the click of a button, which, let's face it, is the only way my data is going to get itself graphed.

Specifics should be taken with a grain of salt. Goodreads and my spreadsheet aren't exactly aligned on what I read. In the middle of the summer I added another layer of questions to my form in order to help organize books for consideration in my classroom. Sometimes I guess or estimate. But the overall trends and patterns are quite clear.

I read mostly books I like. 3.5 and above is a solid 75% of the chart. This is due to two factors: 1) I'm easy to please and b) I know what I like. With over a thousand books on my TBR, there's no reason for me to pick up a book I'm feeling "meh" about.

Still a library girl. There's not much real difference between "classroom library" and "bought new."  If I buy a book, read it, and THEN put it in the library, it's "bought new." If I bought it earlier, put it in the library, and then read it, it's "classroom library." 

This is very much a function of my job. I've never shied away from YA and even MG, but I used to fit in a lot more adult work as well, from mystery series to literary fiction.

I'm mildly surprised at how balanced this is. Especially considering this next one.

I guess women are still more likely to write male protagonists than the other way around. Shocker.

 Aaaand I'm still reading about a bunch of straight white people. (The reason why the chart has those last three categories is that there's an "other" option and clearly I described it differently each time I chose it. Same basic reason why "animals," "shepherd/poodle" and "wombat" are listed separately as well.)

 Every year I say I'm going to read more non-white authors and more non-American ones, and every year I read about 80% white American authors. Sheesh.

This is one where the totals might not equal 100%, since I could and did mark multiple choices per book. (I think I just answered my own internal question about why some of these are bar graphs and some are pie charts.) I think if you'd surveyed me throughout my life, the exact percentages might have changed, but you would have always seen a blend of contemporary, historical fiction, fantasy, and mystery, with a splash of sci fi, and most of my nonfiction in the biography/memoir area. 

There are other areas I'm not bothering to evaluate here, which means I will probably edit them out of my form for 2018. I'll share a blank version here for anyone who'd like it.